Little Theories

young-orson-welles-portrait-001 (1)

Orson Welles was age 23 when the War of the Worlds was broadcast in 1938

Do the Mass Media Really Influence Behavior?

Sometimes I examine Little Theories in my Blog.

I dig into ideas that we take for granted, and ask, “What is the basis for the perspective?”

For example, folks often have the perspective that mass media influence human behavior.

I call this a Little Theory.

Truth is, the mass media have only a minor influence, depending on the context, the person hearing the news, and the type of behavior you want to study.

One urban legend that still gains traction–even after 80 years–is the notion that thousands of people panicked when the Mercury Theatre broadcasted H.G. Wells’s creepy classic about Martians landing in New Jersey.

The original broadcast of War of the Worlds aired on CBS radio, the eve of Halloween: October 30, 1938.

Most of America was tuned into another program: The Chase and Sanborn Hour (a coffee company-sponsored program) which featured the ever-popular ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his sidekick, Charlie McCarthy.


Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen

Edgar Bergen was so popular that the program ran for two decades on radio, and the pair would later become regulars on a device we now call, “television.”

Folks who tuned into the Mercury Theatre in 1938 heard actor Orson Welles narrate a story that Martians had landed and were destroying New Jersey.

Most listeners knew the program was fictional, and those who weren’t sure checked other sources—they looked outside (any Martians?), they read the radio schedule in the newspaper, they checked with their neighbors, or they listened to the entire broadcast, which contained station breaks and a sign-off by Orson Welles that the program was a Halloween treat:

This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of The Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo! … That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian: it’s Halloween.

Folks who “panicked” were in the minority.

Had they checked other sources, they would have been reassured that—while New Jersey may strike fear in the hearts of denizens—the cause wasn’t Martians.

Still: the claim that “thousands panicked” has become a cornerstone in America’s cultural history, although the claim is false.

Just check the news around Halloween each year and you will find stories about hysteria surrounding the broadcast—which never actually occurred, according to researchers on the scene, and by historians who studied human reactions post-broadcast.

Even the respectable New York Times fell victim to the myth.

The newspaper published an opinion this month that caught my eye: the 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds, “triggered widespread panic among thousands fearing an actual alien invasion was taking place,” according to the author.

Although the opinion-piece wasn’t about Halloween, the urban legend lives on, likely because of lazy fact-checking.

I don’t buy the fiction that news stories are “fake.”

But I do believe that reporters—and all of us–can do better by thinking more critically, and by examining the hard evidence behind our assumptions.

NOTE: Tomorrow’s blog examines such assumptions in mass media and Native American peoples.


Day 12: Native American Heritage Month

12 November 2018






















About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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